By Griff Witte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 30, 2011; 1:30 PM
CAIRO - Under the protective gaze of Egyptian soldiers, thousands of demonstrators converged on this capital city's central plaza Sunday and vowed to occupy the site until President Hosni Mubarak steps down.
But even as the gathering gained strength, fears rose across Cairo of mass looting after sundown by armed thugs who were widely believed by Egyptians, as well as by soldiers, to be operating at the behest of the nation's much-maligned Interior Ministry.
In Tahrir Square, the central plaza that has been the focus of anti-Mubarak sentiment, protesters and soldiers worked together to beat back two Interior Ministry vehicles that attempted to enter the site. A tank commander then scaled his vehicle and announced to the crowd that the Interior Ministry, which operates the nation's police force, had deployed thousands of armed men who were bent on sowing chaos in Egypt.
The army, he said, "would stand with the people."
The commander, dressed in battle fatigues, was cheered by the crowd and kissed on the cheek by demonstrators who chanted, "the army and the people are one."
Mohamed ElBaradei, a leading opposition activist and Nobel laureate, joined protesters in the square Sunday.
"You are the owners of this revolution. You are the future," he told the cheering crowd. "Our essential demand is the departure of the regime and the beginning of a new Egypt in which each Egyptian lives in virtue, freedom and dignity." The former head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog left after his brief appearance, and some demonstrators dismissed him as an expatriate long removed from the country's problems.
A spokesman for the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, which wants to establish an Islamist state in Egypt, told the Associated Press he was heading to Tahrir, or Liberation, Square to meet with other opposition leaders.
"You can call this a revolution, you can call this uprising, you can call it anything," spokesman Essam el-Erian said.
ElBaradei also appeared on ABC's "This Week With Christiane Amanpour" Sunday. "It doesn't even begin to address people's concerns," ElBaradei said, referring to Mubarak's actions so far. "The concern right now is that Mubarak has to go. Immediately. . . . The first step is that he has to go. The second step is a government of national salvation, in coordination with the army."
He said a transitional period should take place before the nation prepared for an election.
For the first time during his 30-year rule, Mubarak appointed a vice president, Omar Suleiman, the head of Egypt's intelligence service. The appointment took place a day after Mubarak called for the resignation of governmental officials while abstaining from stepping down.
On Saturday, protesters and soldiers worked together to hold off police.
"The army has to side with us," ElBaradei said during the broadcast Sunday. "I don't think the army will turn on the people. The army is very much on the peoples side. The army is in an impossible situation."
He acknowledged how volatile the situation has become, adding that somebody "gave the order to the police to disband," which promoted the looting by "thugs" in the streets.
The police had enacted a severe crackdown on demonstrators last week, until Friday night, when the army was called out and the police receded. Unlike the police, the army has allowed demonstrations to go forward and has not enforced what had been a strict government curfew.
Dozens of tanks lined major roadways, and military helicopters and fighter jets made their first appearances Sunday afternoon, flying low across the Cairo skyline. It was not immediately clear why air power had been dispatched.
The U.S. Embassy in Egypt on Sunday recommended that Americans leave the country as soon as possible and was assisting citizens. Other nations, including China, France, Germany, Belgium and Russia, have warned or advised their citizens against travel to Egypt, and some nations have flown in additional flights to evacuate their citizens, the Associated Press reported.
With uniformed police virtually absent from Cairo's streets, the soldiers and residents cooperated to provide security. But residents - particularly those in upscale neighborhoods in and around the city - said they had been terrorized Saturday night by marauding bands of looters armed with knives, clubs and guns. Residents said they were bracing for more Sunday night, and the army encouraged all Egyptians to arm themselves in self-defense.
Reports circulated across the city that thousands of criminals had escaped from a high-security prison just outside Cairo. Egyptians, however, said they believed the police had deliberately allowed the prisoners to flee.
"As Nero burned Rome, the government is trying to burn Egypt," said bookstore owner Aza al-Hadary, 63. "It's a dirty plan. Mubarak is in a corner and he doesn't want to leave."
Evidence of a possible rift between the army and the police appeared to gain credence when state television announced that Mubarak had met with the nation's military leadership and Suleiman. Significantly, the interior minister was not mentioned.
Throughout the day Sunday, rumors ran rampant. At one point just before dusk in Tahrir Square, a report circulated within the crowd that Mubarak had resigned the presidency and fled the country. Almost as one, thousands of people began to jump up and down in triumph, shouting, "He's gone!" Atop tanks, soldiers and protesters embraced.
But just as quickly as the news had spread, a second rumor - this one apparently true - emerged: Mubarak was still the president. The crowd quieted.
Earlier in the day, Mubarak met with Suleiman, Defense Minister Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, Chief of Staff Sami al-Anan and other commanders at a military headquarters. When the fighter planes flew overhead, some shouted "Long live the army." Others in Tahrir shouted: "We will not go, he will go, Hosni is going mad."
The defense minister was shown on state television reviewing army units based outside the state broadcasting building. "Egypt depends on you now," Tantawi said to one soldier, patting him on the shoulders.
Jubilant pro-democracy demonstrators and gun-toting soldiers rode together atop tanks into this capital city's main square Saturday in an extraordinary show of solidarity, even as Mubarak took steps to engineer a possible transfer of power to one of his closest confidants.
After four days of nationwide battles between protesters and police, the tens of thousands of Egyptians who have taken to the streets to demand an end to Mubarak's 29-year rule received an unexpected endorsement when the military declined to block their latest rally. Instead, soldiers flashed peace signs and smiled approvingly as demonstrators chanted "Down with Mubarak!'' When protesters attempted to mount one of the tanks, the troops invited more aboard, until an entire convoy was covered, leading the crowd to cheer mightily.
It remains to be seen whether the grand gestures reflected a military endorsement of the protesters' demand or were simply an attempt by commanders to defuse tensions and buy time for the autocratic Mubarak to consolidate control and put in a plan of succession.
Mubarak, 82, owes much of his authority to the military, and on Saturday he made critical appointments that could signal his intention to keep power within the security establishment. Most critically, Mubarak for the first time named a vice president - an apparent step toward setting up a successor other than his son Gamal, whom he had appeared to be grooming for the post.
But Mubarak's pick, intelligence chief Suleiman, is widely despised among demonstrators, who have demanded the chance to choose their own president in national elections.
If Mubarak should resign and hand control to Suleiman, it is unlikely that protesters would be appeased. Still, success in driving Mubarak from office would be a monumental achievement for a movement that has spread spontaneously across the nation since Tuesday as Egyptians who have long been accustomed to quietly accepting authority rise up in full-throated reaction.
Reverberations extended across the Middle East on Saturday. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia denounced Egypt's protests for "inciting a malicious sedition,'' while in Jordan the leader of the powerful Muslim Brotherhood warned that the unrest would spread across the region to topple leaders allied with the United States. In Yemen, a small anti-government protest turned violent as demonstrators clashed with security forces.
In Washington, a White House spokesman said President Obama was receiving frequent updates from his national security staff. The National Security Council convened a two-hour meeting to discuss the situation, and participants included Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Vice President Biden, the White House said.
Led by a series of three strong-armed rulers since 1952, Egypt has no experience with genuine democracy, and it is unclear who would triumph in a fair and free election. This week's movement has had no visible central leadership from any individual or organization. While the Muslim Brotherhood is the nation's largest opposition party, analysts say it has the support of only a minority of Egyptians.
Protesters this week have been noticeably secular, saying they do not want Islamic law imposed after years of living under Mubarak's emergency rule, and the Muslim Brotherhood has played only a marginal role in the demonstrations.Echoes in Middle East
A successful democratic movement in Egypt would probably have far-reaching implications across the Middle East, which is now dominated by unelected autocrats but which has long taken its political and cultural cues from Cairo. Since Tunisians ousted their longtime dictator this month, protests have sprung up across the Arab world.
In Tunisia, however, democracy advocates have said they believe their revolution is only partially complete, as many of the former president's loyalists remain in power.
Here, too, demonstrators say they are seeking a total break with a government that they charge has ruled this country ineptly and criminally, with economic benefits clustered in the hands of a corrupt and powerful elite while a majority of the population endures abysmally poor living conditions.
"The resources of this country all go to a few businessmen with connections to the government, not to the people,'' Farouk Hanafy, a 33-year-old engineer, said as he marched down the Corniche, this city's grand promenade beside the Nile. "We want justice.''
Hanafy cradled in his arms his 18-month-old daughter. He said he brought her to the demonstrations because "for as long as I can remember, I have known only one president. I want her to see someone besides Mubarak. I want her to see that I change this society.''
In previous days, bringing a child to one of this city's pro-democracy rallies, which have spread to cities nationwide, would have been reckless. Police have used tear gas, water cannons and live bullets to disperse protesters, and on Saturday authorities said at least 62 have died in the demonstrations. It was not possible to verify the casualties.
But the police pulled back Friday night as the army rolled in. With soldiers under apparent orders to allow the protests to proceed, Saturday's demonstrations were far more orderly than on any previous day.Looting in Cairo
Still, without hindrance from police, looters fanned out across the capital and the well-to-do suburbs, smashing windows, stealing merchandise and setting fires. In some areas, residents armed with clubs launched vigilante patrols. In downtown Cairo, shopkeepers said they would sleep in their stores to try to fend off would-be thieves.
"If they come to my store, I'll shoot them,'' Izz Mohammed, 54, said as he flashed a pistol and a fresh clip of ammunition under his suit jacket.
Late Saturday, gunshots and sirens were heard across the capital.
Government authorities blamed protesters run amok for the breakdown of law and order. But demonstrators claimed that the ruling National Democratic Party was sending plainclothes loyalists to sow anarchy in a bid to discredit the burgeoning democracy movement and to justify what protesters fear would be a merciless crackdown.
"Mubarak wants chaos,'' said Sayed Abdel el-Hakim, a 30-year-old math teacher.
Officials at Al Jazeera reported Sunday that they'd been informed their broadcasting license would be revoked and that they'd be required to shut down operations in Egypt. The government has sought to strictly control information in Egypt in recent days. Internet connections remained cut for a third straight day Sunday.
On Saturday, demonstrators held aloft banners reading "Don't burn Egypt,'' and some bragged of having guarded the famed Egyptian Museum from looters until army commandos arrived on the scene Friday night.
The museum appeared largely unscathed Saturday, even as the wreckage of the National Democratic Party headquarters - Mubarak's political home - continued to billow thick black smoke. Both buildings face Tahrir Square, and they provided the backdrop at dusk Saturday as thousands of Egyptians streamed into Cairo's central plaza.
The protesters filed past dozens of desert-beige tanks manned by troops in matching combat fatigues who at first appeared impassive but gradually broke into grins as the square rapidly filled.
Unlike the police, who are hated here for their reputation for demanding bribes, the army is popular even among Egyptians who loathe Mubarak, the military's longtime patron.
When it became clear that the military had no intention of enforcing a previously announced 4 p.m. curfew, the protesters and the soldiers relaxed as both sides enjoyed a brief moment of harmony after a violent and divisive week. Protesters tossed the troops oranges, cigarettes and bottles of water; the troops gave thumbs-up signs and left no doubt where their sympathies lie.
"We are with the people,'' said Ahmed, a skinny 20-year-old soldier who would not give his last name.
When the soldiers invited the protesters onto their tanks, the crowd of thousands whistled, honked horns and allowed themselves to dream of a future for Egypt that just days ago looked unimaginable.
"This is freedom,'' said Abdel Nasser-Awad, a 40-year-old businessman. "Now we know Mubarak will leave. The only question is when.''
Correspondent Leila Fadel in Cairo and staff writers Joby Warrick and Felicia Sonmez in Washington contributed to this report.